Busking With Bach

A video of a street musician playing amid the bustle of a morning commuter crowd, hundreds of people passing by, not missing a step or casting even a sidelong glance at the performer. What’s so unusual about that? Well, for one thing this Youtube video has nearly a million and a half hits. That’s not likely to happen if you or I post music on Youtube.

Some of you may know this story already. It made national news in early April of 2007. If you do, bear with me because there is a lot more to this story than what you have heard or read.

First off, just play the video; then I’ll clue you in.

Okay, the violinist is damned good. The music, a masterpiece — the “Chaconne” from the J.S. Bach Second Partita. This movement is almost 15 minutes long and is one of the most difficult and exhausting pieces in the string repertoire. He plays it twice, plus Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”

At about a minute and a half into the video clip, a woman stops about ten feet from the performer. She does not move even as dozens of people scurry past on all sides, like one of those speeded up scenes from Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisquatsi — Hopi for Life Out of Balance. That’s a hint as to where this story is headed.

The woman is named Stacy Furukawa. After the music ends, she says to him “I saw you at the Library of Congress. It was fantastic.”

Whoa. Some street musician! Perhaps you know already that this was an event staged by Washington Post feature writer Gene Weingarten. His wonderful piece about the incident and its implications about our societal values is the subject of an article that appeared in the weekend magazine of the paper, a place where he was able to examine more than weekday reportage. The national dialogue that grew out of his essay is still going on. As for the video — Youtube finally disabled the comments section.

The musician is Joshua Bell, a young violin virtuoso, a luminary in the classical music world; he is playing on his own $3.5 million Strad. He chose a place to perform just away from the top of the escalator at the heavily trafficked L’Enfant Plaza subway station in D.C. In the course of a 43-minute solo recital, he earned about $59 from passersby—if you include the 20 bucks Ms. Furukawa gave him.

Several days after the subterranean “recital,” Bell appeared in NYC to accept the Avery Fisher Prize, one of classical music’s most treasured awards. Oh, just to enhance its cachet, it comes with a $75,000 honorarium. The next day, Bell is interviewed by Michelle Norris of NPR; you can listen to his thoughts about the D.C. event here:

NPR story

This entire brouhaha could possibly be reduced to a simple reflective aside about just how too busy we all are to recognize a moment of transcendent beauty in front of us. That was the tack that much of the national media took and it at first seems to be the point of Weingarten’s WaPost article. But to leave it at that does a real disservice to the imagination that thought up the event and the complex logistics that planted reporters all around the subway entrance, intercepted random passersby, and got their phone numbers under the pretext of doing a survey—only to be interviewed later by Weingarten.

This is the part of the incident that was least covered in the media’s haste to get the gist of the event and then move on to the next story. Weingarten was interested not only in the irony of a concert hall star being ignored, or of a glib indictment of the passing crowd’s indifference to Bach.

What is extraordinary about Weingartern’s full article, and I beg you to take the time to read it, is just how varied, singular, yet complex our states of mind are at any moment, even as we are bent upon our most mundane tasks. Here it is; it’s full of surprises (and with it a different half minute video clip). I know it’s a bit long but don’t “walk” past it, read it.

The Washington Post article

The article is partly bio (Bell’s), partly context (great music in a mundane place) and partly a wry musing on the futility of making general judgments about people. One suspects Weingarten has an almost Runyonesque interest in the “common man”. But then, he also writes about Kant.

But even beyond all this, what intrigued me about the story as I began to dig inside it is its Rashomon-like dimension: a story that seems to send out multi-perspective tentacles from a single event. Here is an apparently non-descript fiddler wearing a baseball cap, trying to pick up a few bucks between gigs, who turns out to be one of the world’s great concert musicians, who is not trying, as a self-styled venture, to address a purely personal question about fame, but who is, in fact, part of a social experiment staged by one of the nation’s signature newspapers, that fully expects a kind of mob frenzy to unfold when the crowd grows and the musician is finally recognized — but who in fact is not recognized, except by a solitary woman holding a plastic bag, the  musician then going on national radio to discuss his own surprised reaction at the lack of applause and the instant insecurity for what, regardless of whether or not he is recognized, is in fact great music, beautifully performed, the sense of time suspended when there is no reaction at all at the decay of the final chord, just stony indifference, all this charted by a contingent of reporters planted at the periphery, who intercept anonymous passing people in order to question them for a bogus survey, but who in fact are getting phone numbers for the reporter to interview later in the day about their recollection of a non-event most of them don’t recall — and finally the presentation of the whole motley doings as a lead feature in a newspaper magazine Sunday supplement.

The only thing that does not seem surreal to me in all this is that video image of one woman quietly standing opposite a man playing a violin, a web of beauty spinning out from the hands of the player to the ears of the listener, weaving itself around both of them, as the world passes by.

That moment kind of takes my breath away. But is this whole thing just hi-jinx, one of those “only in America” charades — or is there a point to be made here about how diffuse and complex our individual lives are, how indifferent we are to the most obvious beauty about us, or is it about the price we pay for being so per-blind?  Judge for yourself. Consider what a number of people tell Weingarten as he tries to re-capture that moment when they just walked past, unaware.

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